#SDLP16: Rome wasn’t made functional in a day, nor will Northern Ireland in one election

It’s well to remember that no SDLP leader has made a senior league speech since the single transferable days of John Hume. On Saturday night they got something approaching that. Eastwood covered things that have been neglected for much of the last 25 years.

It energised the hall which – lest we forget in this age of Twitter – actually does still matter. Particularly in the teeth of what is likely to be a very tough election for both nationalist parties. Growing Unionist turnout is now a feature rather than a bug in the system.

One thing that he may come to regret locally is using the Donegal outcome in the southern election to jibe Derry Sinn Fein about taking three out of six Assembly seats. There’s no operational comparison between Derry and the party’s much newer outfit in Donegal.

If he’s upped the ante for his own team he will also have motivated his local opponents to re-double their efforts to lay a few welts on his youthful political backside. The truth is though that the outcome will hurt whichever party the swinging door in Derry hits.

But nationalist parties seeking to make gains simply by canibalising each others seats (FST is now the only real banker the SDLP has, and that’s against Sinn Fein) suggests they’ve hit horse latitudes. And suggests a lack of any generative longer term strategy.

An old SDLP friend (no fan of the current leader) said to me early in Alasdair McDonnell’s time that when you stop using your voice as a leader you find it hard to get it back. Eastwood has certainly has a voice and some composure under pressure in interviews.

That’s not been the case for a long time. Like many of the new recruits Eastwood has taken “making Northern Ireland work” from the hard internal work of his predecessor but at least he has had the nerve to sell it to the wider public.

It seems to me that every new minor party leader has to break through a solid wall of fatalism, as much amongst their own supporters as in the wider public. He must now get his troops to beleive in a campaign that perhaps only they will believe they can win.

The way to face the Sysphyean challenge of past failures Rick Wilford mentioned is to frame the future differently. Eastwood means to foreground the intractable realities of Northern Ireland, over SF’s mysteriously umapped route to a united island.

Mystery can be a good ally in politics: it can allow you to disrupt, slap your opponents hard and then fade into the background.

There is, however, no mystery surrounding the stunted reality of policy development in Northern Ireland or the stop-start nature of governance within the office of OFMdFM.

There are good reasons why Invest NI has only put 1% of its budgets into West Belfast.  In highlighting it Eastwood raises the effects of long term political inaction in Sinn Fein’s bastion, matching their pitch with the trajectory of Cllr Gerry Carroll’s PBP campaign there.

None of this is going substantially change the broad outcome of the election.

These changes are probably too few, too unworked through and too late in the day for that. But they may be enough to affect the micro outcomes in the key battles the SDLP need to win to avoid their electoral rock slipping any further back down the hill.

However Cathy Gormley Heenan made several telling points yesterday when she noted how the public narrative will need time to catch up with the reality of a changed SDLP (which if they have a good day may be younger and fresher than its main rivals).

She also pointed out that publishing red lines for the Programme for Government negotiations (particularly if the SDLP has only only Executive seat) raises the possiblility of walking away for a temporary period in which SDLP hands will be untied on the two big parties.

How will any of it be paid for? Well, in the short term that may be covered by the manifesto. In the short term however I suspect the motive is to try to force their opponents to argue against motherhood and apple pie.

And then, after they are compelled to refuse, launch a more credible and comprehensive mainstream campaign to make Northern Ireland work from the comfort of opposition. If Rome wasn’t made functional in a day, nor will Northern Ireland in just one election.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

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